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With the U.S. occupied in Iraq, other hot spots simmer

HAVANA, Cuba — While the United States is focused on ousting Saddam Hussein, experts say that American officials must guard against ignoring other troubled spots that could erupt.

Continuing tensions on the Korean peninsula, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the dangerous standoff between India and Pakistan and the bloody civil war in Colombia remain among the most vexing foreign-policy issues facing the United States.

Experts warn that North Korea is perhaps only months away from producing a nuclear weapon and India and Pakistan could renew hostilities over the disputed Kashmir region.

Meanwhile, dozens of U.S. Special Forces trainers and hundreds of American contractors are helping the Colombian government fight a complex and seemingly interminable civil war. U.S. advisers also are helping Colombian forces search for three American contractors captured last month by leftist guerrillas.

Some experts said the Bush administration's focus on Iraq has sucked the oxygen out of other foreign policy initiatives. Others said the U.S. is ready to defend its interests worldwide.

"In our global role of leadership we have to deal with a number of crises," said Peter Brookes, a senior fellow for national security affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "We want to discourage anybody from foolishly trying to take advantage of our operations in the Persian Gulf."

South Korea's prime minister warned of just such an event, saying this week that his country will tighten security in ports and airports as well as U.S. diplomatic and military facilities in an effort to prevent North Korea from provoking a confrontation.

"Tensions are rising on the Korean peninsula because of the North Korea nuclear issue," Prime Minister Goh Kun said Tuesday. "A war against Iraq could have the effect of escalating the tensions."

Experts say North Korea, which last year disclosed that it had been carrying out a secret nuclear program, has removed nuclear fuel rods from a facility once under international inspection and may already be reprocessing the fuel to make a nuclear weapon.

North Korean officials have demanded direct talks with the United States to resolve the issue. U.S. officials have refused such talks, preferring instead to refer the North Korean problem to the U.N. Security Council.

The U.S. military keeps about 37,000 troops in South Korea as a deterrent against the North and is carrying out joint military exercises with South Korean troops. North Korea criticized the training exercise as a rehearsal for an invasion.

"The U.S.'s reckless war exercises are an escalation of its aggressive and adventurous military actions against the (North) to seek a military solution to the nuclear issue," said North Korea's official news agency.

Michele Flournoy, senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the military buildup in the Persian Gulf — along with homeland security efforts and the pursuit of al-Qaida — has distracted top U.S. officials from focusing on North Korea and other issues.

"I don't think that there is much energy or attention for other significant foreign-policy issues," she said.

Instead of pushing the issue to the United Nations, Flournoy said, the Bush administration should canvass its allies to develop a common position and "draw a red line" declaring that the United States "will not tolerate the reprocessing of nuclear fuel for nuclear weapons."

"If we do nothing, North Korea will be a nuclear weapons power," she warned. "That (would be) a major strategic change in northeast Asia, and we should do everything in our power to stop that."

Lee Feinstein, deputy director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it might already be too late for the administration to prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear weapon. He said the administration has long had a myopic view of foreign policy, focusing on one issue to the exclusion of others.

Feinstein argued that early on the Bush foreign-policy team concentrated on promoting a U.S. missile defense while ignoring North Korea, U.S.-China relations and Europe.

Later, after U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan, the U.S. failed to give sufficient attention to the India-Pakistan conflict or simmering tensions in the Middle East, he argued.

Only in the last week did Bush lay out a road map for attempting to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And Feinstein criticized the failure of the administration to continue diplomatic efforts aimed at preventing war between India and Pakistan.

Perhaps the greatest threat to U.S. military personnel outside the Persian Gulf is in Colombia, where two leftist guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitary forces are battling Colombian troops for control of the country.

Last month, an American military contractor was killed and three others were captured by leftist guerrillas after their plane crashed in the Colombian jungle. The U.S. sent 49 U.S. military and civilian officials to Colombia after the crash to assist Colombian troops in the rescue effort.

The United States has about 400 military officials in Colombia, including 70 Special Forces troops who are training Colombian soldiers to protect an oil pipeline owned in part by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum.

Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a liberal Washington think tank, said there is a risk of the U.S. military getting further sucked into the Colombian conflict, especially as the media and the public turns its attention to Iraq.

"It's a relatively obscure and complex conflict compared to what is taking place in Iraq," he said. "The situation in Colombia is potentially dangerous. The clock is ticking."

But one U.S. official said the Bush administration, aware of a potential quagmire, is "not going to commit combat troops" in Colombia.

Still, Brookes of the Heritage Foundation said the U.S. has plenty of forces at hand should another major conflict erupt. Less than one-quarter of the U.S. military's 1.2 million troops are committed to the Iraq war, though 10,000 soldiers are in Afghanistan and thousands more are in the Horn of Africa hunting for members of al-Qaida, he said.

The U.S. has an additional 1 million reservists.

"The U.S. armed forces are ready to undertake any contingency the president may direct," Brookes said.